Seven decades after cheetahs died out in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings them back

NEW DELHI — Seven decades after the cheetahs went extinct in India, they are back.

Eight big cats from Namibia set off on the long migration to the northern Indian city of Gwalior on a chartered cargo flight on Saturday, part of an ambitious and hotly contested plan to reintroduce cheetahs to the South Asian country.

Then they were moved to their new home: a sprawling national park in the heart of India where scientists hope the world’s fastest land animal will once again roam.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the cats into their enclosure on Saturday morning. The cats emerged from their cage, tentatively at first, while continually scanning their new surroundings.

“When the cheetah walks again…grasslands will be restored, biodiversity will increase, and ecotourism will get a boost,” Modi said.

Cheetahs were once widespread in India and became extinct in 1952 from hunting and habitat loss. They remain the first and only predator to go extinct since India gained independence in 1947. India hopes importing African cheetahs will aid efforts to conserve the country’s threatened and largely neglected grasslands.

There are fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs in the wild worldwide, and they now inhabit less than 9% of their original range. Shrinking habitat due to increasing human population and climate change is a major threat, and India’s grasslands and forests could provide “adequate” homes for the big cat, said Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an advocacy group and research group that is helping the cats to India bring.

“To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create permanent places for them on earth,” she said.

Cheetah populations are declining in most countries. An exception is South Africa, where the cats have run out of space. Experts hope Indian forests could offer these cats space to thrive. A dozen cheetahs are currently in quarantine in South Africa, and they are expected to arrive in Kuno National Park soon. Earlier this month, four cheetahs captured from reserves in South Africa were flown to Mozambique, where the cheetah population has drastically declined.

Some experts are more cautious.

There could be “cascading and unintended consequences” of introducing a new animal into the mix, said Mayukh Chatterjee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

For example, a tiger population boom in India has led to more conflicts with people sharing the same space. With cheetahs, the question is how their presence would affect other carnivores like striped hyenas, or even prey like birds.

“The question remains: how well done it is,” he said.

The first eight cheetahs from Namibia will be quarantined at a facility in the national park and monitored for a month to ensure they are not carrying vermin. They are then released into a larger enclosure in the park to allow them to acclimate to their new surroundings. The enclosures contain natural prey — like spotted deer and antelope, which scientists hope they will learn to hunt — and are designed to prevent other predators, such as bears or leopards, from entering.

The cheetahs will be fitted with tracking collars and released into the national park in about two months. Their movements will be routinely tracked, but for the most part they will be on their own.

The reserve is large enough to house 21 cheetahs, and if they establish territories and breed, they could spread to other connected grasslands and forests that can house another dozen cheetahs, scientists say.

Only one village with a few hundred families lives on the edge of the park. Indian officials said they would be relocated soon and any livestock lost due to cheetahs would be compensated. The project is estimated to cost US$11.5 million over five years, including US$6.3 million paid by state Indian Oil.

The resettlement from continent to continent has taken decades. The cats that originally roamed India were Asiatic cheetahs, genetically distinct cousins ​​of the African-dwelling cheetahs whose range stretched as far as Saudi Arabia.

India had hoped to introduce Asiatic cheetahs, but only a few dozen of them survive in Iran, and this population is too endangered to move.

Many obstacles remain, including the presence of other predators in India like leopards that could compete with cheetahs, said conservation geneticist Pamela Burger of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.

“It would be better to keep them where they are now than to make efforts to create new sites, the outcome of which is questionable,” she said.

dr Adrian Tordiffe, a South African veterinary wildlife specialist associated with the project, said the animals need a helping hand. He added that conservation efforts in many African countries have not been as successful, unlike in India, where strict conservation laws have preserved big cat populations.

“We cannot sit back and hope that species like the cheetah can survive without our help,” he said.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Seven decades after cheetahs died out in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings them back

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